Innovating Smart Solutions for Vegetable Production
 
Jan 21, 2015
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The Toshiba facility in Yokosuka, a port town on Tokyo Bay south of Yokohama, looks like a lot of other Japanese factories from the outside: quiet with neatly kept grounds, its low-rise whitewashed buildings built for utility rather than beauty. All-in-all pretty nondescript. But here, appearances definitely are deceptive.

Step off the elevator on the corner of the fourth floor of one of the buildings, and corridors run away left and right, both 50 meters or so. Take a few steps in either direction, and windows on the interior walls reveal the building’s secret. Bursts of green against white, rows after row of green in different shades and different sizes. The building is home to Toshiba Corporation’s first plant factory.

Toshiba is making a concerted effort to build a strong presence in the burgeoning healthcare market, and the plant factory showcases the progress the company is making—and just what technology has to contribute.

Whatever its causes, climate change is set to cut a swathe through some of the world’s most fertile regions, raising a lot of questions about the future of agriculture. There are other concerns too, chief among them population growth, which will impose more demands on land and water, and the increasing scale of natural disasters, particularly severe rain and flooding. In coming years, as the challenges pile up, innovation needs to come to the fore.

Toshiba’s plant factory is one such innovation. Of course, hydroponics—growing plants in a liquid, without soil—is hardly new. What is new is the level of know-how that Toshiba brings to the process.

The Yokosuka facility is a closed environment installed in a class 8 clean room. Filters clean the air pumped into the growing area, while water purifiers allow use of ordinary water fortified with nutrients. This ensures an almost aseptic environment that cuts germs on the vegetables to a thousandth that of the same vegetables grown outdoors. Not only are they free of bugs and agrichemical, they are also healthier and stay fresh for longer. And that is just the beginning.

Technologies used at Yokosuka draw on capabilities from across Toshiba Group. Entry to the clean room is via corridors coated with Rene Cat, a light activated antibacterial and deodorizer. A hydrochlorous acid water machine delivers the disinfectant that employees use to wash their hands before entering the growing area. Once inside, fluorescent tubes output light at a wavelength optimized for growing vegetables, and the air-conditioning system maintains a constant temperature. A remote monitoring system networks the plant and tracks plant growth, and once the daily crop is ready for pick, UV sterilization systems for packing materials ensure that produce reaching customers is as clean as when harvested. All of this is supported by clean room management system largely based on semiconductor production.

The growing room has a floor area approaching 2,000 square meters. At one end, staff swathed in coveralls, head covers and masks deftly place seeds in germination trays. As the seedlings emerge and the plants grow, they are moved through the facility at planned intervals, from smaller to bigger racks, until they are ready for harvesting and packing. The whole process takes about a month. The current crop line-up includes romaine and frillice lettuces, baby spinach, Swiss chard and mizuna, a Japanese favorite. However, Toshiba has already proved that it can grow other plants, and is ready to supply customers with basil, coriander and dill if the demand is there.

Putting seeds into germinating trays in the clean room

Following months of testing and calibration, the plant has been delivering output since November, and has the capacity to grow the equivalent of 3 million heads of lettuce a year. That’s a lot of salad—and there’s a lot more to that salad. In the controlled environment Toshiba has created, it’s possible to create functional vegetables that are low in potassium and rich in vitamins and polyphenols, which are seen as helping to prevent cardiovascular diseases, cancers, and osteoporosis. Even better, the vegetables also taste good, with a full, natural taste deeper than that of a lot of supermarket-bought veggies.

Ready to eat—fresh, crisp and very tasty

In February 2014, Toshiba announced a four-pronged strategy for building on its world-class position in diagnostic imaging systems (MRI, CT, etc.) and expanding its presence in the healthcare market. The company is focusing on prevention to reduce risk of disease; diagnosis and treatment to achieve early detection and stress-free treatment regimes; prognosis and nursing care to support patients and convalescents; and health promotion that helps people to lead happier lives and remain mentally and physically fit by ensuring the quality of the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat.

The plant factory falls under health promotion, and shines a light on how technology can deliver solutions. Similar facilities in Middle Eastern countries might not green deserts, but they could establish a local source of green vegetables for countries with little arable land; and in Northern Europe they could help to make up for short growing seasons and long winters. In both cases, they could help to cut exports and all the related costs and logistics. In emerging economies, where cities continue to grow and suck people from the countryside, they could be integrated into new buildings, bringing farms into the city.

Of course, that is looking into the future, and looking quite a long way. But that is what Toshiba is doing: taking a long hard look at the way the world is changing and seeking to create imaginative solutions that draw on the wide ranging capabilities of Toshiba Group as a whole. In Toshiba, the impetus for this is known as New Concept Innovation, and it supports the company in working toward its vision of the future, the creation of a Human Smart Community where people everywhere live safe, secure, comfortable lives. Not a bad objective.

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